I think about this question a lot…like a lot, a lot.
Having founded and operated a technology incubator/accelerator for over 3 years now, I have met with over 500 founders in one form or another. Of those 500+ founders, I have had the privilege of working closely with 90 of them on a daily basis. That means at least 90 founders of 90 startups, all determined to change the world and operating under the unshakable (and not so unique) belief that they are the 1% that will build Uber reincarnate.
Herein lies the problem, statistically the vast majority (like 95% vast) of those companies will not become the next Uber and will inevitably shut down at some point in the future. This statistical fact leads me to ponder the question “what is the point?” and “why do we encourage everyone to become a tech founder?”
We see in the media the likes of TechCrunch and BetaKit constantly highlighting the profound success of founders in emerging tech startups, raising what seems to be a bajillion dollars. Founders of tech startups are the new celebrity, and in a world where the image of success as propagated by online platforms like Instagram is everything, it seems that everyone's startup journey is perfect to the point of algorithmic-like. A tale as old as Y Combinator, it goes like this:
Step 1. Founder discovers something no one else seemed to be aware of;
Step 2. Founder builds a renowned team of ex-Googlers who believe in their vision;
Step 3. Founder raises money following 3000000% MoM growth;
Step 4. Founder repeats Step 3. three more times until the company goes public and becomes Hooli.
(insert crying laughing emoji)
We talk all the time about how hard it is to build a startup and ‘the journey’ that founders go on, as if it were some spiritual experience or pilgrimage for the woke. Perhaps it is for some, but having witnessed at least 50+ startups go under (and having two of my own fail), I can tell you it is not pretty and rarely results in the virtuous catharsis we all imagine. Founders of failed startups lose money, years of their lives, and most unfortunately, their confidence. You try looking into the eyes of someone who you have worked to support for years finally throw in the towel and shed all that self determination that allowed them to crack on for as long as they did. In my experience, both successful and unsuccessful founders develop a reality-distortion-field (code for they buy their own bullshit) over time. That said, frankly I don’t judge them as building startups is war and the cultivation of an ego and peddling the delusion that things are “fine” is simply their armour.
So, why do we as local members of our respective tech communities continue to promote founder culture as if all founders are going to reap the benefits, when we know full well the probability of failure?
The answer (I infer) is simple. We encourage prospective founders of startups to follow their dreams for the same reason we support athletes and musicians. Think about it, all three of these ‘professions’ share almost the exact same characteristics. Athletes, musicians, and founders all face the inevitable reality that less than 1% of them will become the next Michael Phelps, Adele, or Jack Dorsey. Yet, even with this knowledge at the very precipice of their unique ‘journeys’, they all still choose to pursue their dreams. Why?
If we were to measure the economic and social impact of encouraging aspiring musicians and athletes to pursue their dreams in the face of the inevitable, what would we find? Well, for starters, there is no mathematical or scientific way to determine who will and will not become successful in these fields. The variability is merely too complex with the factors of timing, market conditions, competition, demand (to name a few) all playing an integral role in determining why some achieve their desired success while most do not. Founders are the same, they spend years of their lives dedicated to a goal with zero assurances of reaching it and in an environment where they cannot control or even identify the factors that influence who wins and who looses. Sure, Adele and Michael Phelps were naturally talented, but had either of them been born in a different year or in a different country they could just as easily have not risen to to the top of their field. Yes, they worked hard to get to where they are today, but so did all of the other musicians and athletes they implicitly compete with.
So, we as a society are incapable of determining who is going to be the next olympic athlete or celebrity musician, so we encourage everyone to give it a shot. But, is this really the only reason why?
The thing is, encouraging millions of aspiring musicians and athletes to pursue their dreams has secondary benefits to our society beyond determining the top performers. Whether or not these musicians and athletes rise to the level they aspire to, they improve our society through the cultivation of essential human qualities such as passion, determination, and work ethic. These skills then manifest into whatever future profession their journey leads them to. For example, an aspiring singer who later in life becomes a teacher cultivates creativity and passion in their students. An aspiring NFL linebacker who later becomes an elected official cultivates a sense of teamwork and communication in whatever part of government they operate in.
So, the world needs founders like the world needs athletes and musicians for the simple reason that whether or not they become the paragon of their field, the skills they acquire and the passion they cultivate improves our society. Yes, they may fail at becoming Jack Dorsey, but they will succeed in changing the lives of others because they, like their musical and athletic counterparts, learn unteachable lessons along the way.